The idea that Valentine’s Day, which falls yearly on Feb. 14, was a cynical gambit by greeting card companies, came with a line of dialogue in the 2004 Jim Carrey/Kate Winslet romance “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
“Valentine’s Day is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap,” Carrey’s character, Joel, stated.
It’s a pithy line and sums up the cynicism some may feel about the holiday, on which those in romantic relationships often demonstrate their affection with things like flowers, cards, gifts, and candy. No doubt the holiday is good day for card companies, along with candy makers, jewelry retailers, and restaurants.
But is it true that they invented it?
The origins of Valentine’s Day are murky, but it seems safe to say that the holiday started as a day of expressing appreciation for romantic relationships well before card companies, as they exist today, got involved. Although some point to a violent fertility festival in ancient Rome called Lupercalia as a possible origin, others note that at least two saints named Valentine were executed by the Roman Empire in the third century A.D.
It’s a popular belief that Valentine’s Day is a religious holiday centered around a saint named Valentine.
History professor Lisa Bitel, however, noted that this belief doesn’t withstand scrutiny. She wrote in 2018 that it was more than 1,000 years after these executions that the romantic association with Feb. 14 appeared in the work of “Canterbury Tales” author Geoffrey Chaucer. Bitel noted:
It seems that, in Chaucer’s day, English birds paired off to produce eggs in February. Soon, nature-minded European nobility began sending love notes during bird-mating season. For example, the French Duke of Orléans, who spent some years as a prisoner in the Tower of London, wrote to his wife in February 1415 that he was “already sick of love” (by which he meant lovesick.) And he called her his “very gentle Valentine.”
English audiences embraced the idea of February mating. Shakespeare’s lovestruck Ophelia spoke of herself as Hamlet’s Valentine.
In the following centuries, Englishmen and women began using Feb. 14 as an excuse to pen verses to their love objects. Industrialization made it easier with mass-produced illustrated cards adorned with smarmy poetry. Then along came Cadbury, Hershey’s, and other chocolate manufacturers marketing sweets for one’s sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it wasn’t until the 1700s that card sellers began selling commercially printed valentines. “The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s,” according to the Britannica.
Although one can’t factually argue the holiday was “invented” by greeting card companies, the mass production of cards appears to have played a key role in its popularity in the U.S.
Boston-based TV station WCVB reported that the manner in which Valentine’s Day is celebrated today is owed, at least in significant part, to the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and an entrepreneur named Esther Howland. Howland “started making her first valentines in 1848 with an assembly-line operation. She first advertised her business in 1852.”
Samples of Howland’s handiwork included in the WCVB article show meticulously-detailed lace designs. She later merged her business with that of Jonathan Taft, forming NEVco. Hallmark didn’t burst onto the scene until 1910, and the company began mass-producing printed Valentine’s Day cards shortly after.
“Valentine’s Day | Definition, History, & Traditions.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Valentines-Day. Accessed 14 Feb. 2022.
Bitel, Lisa. “The ‘real’ St. Valentine Was No Patron of Love.” The Conversation, 13 Feb. 2018, http://theconversation.com/the-real-st-valentine-was-no-patron-of-love-90518.
Len Catron, Mandy. “Five Myths about Valentine’s Day.” Washington Post, 8 Feb. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-valentines-day/2019/02/08/6f5ddaac-29c4-11e9-b2fc-721718903bfc_story.html.